Parents of slain journalist demand justice from South Sudan
For the first time since American-British journalist, Christopher Allen, was killed in South Sudan more than a year and a half ago, his parents are publicly demanding that the country’s government deliver justice for the death of their son.
“We are living a nightmare we cannot escape, we will never see our son again,” Joyce Krajian, Allen’s mother told the Mail & Guardian in her first statement to print media since Allen died on August 26, 2017. Krajian and her husband John Allen are calling for a full and transparent investigation by South Sudan’s government, who they say has “lacked any will to respond” and has met questions about their son’s death with “silence.” If they fail to act, Allen’s parents want the British and American authorities to intervene and investigate. “A foreign national and a journalist in South Sudan cannot be killed with impunity,” said Krajian.
Allen, a 26-year-old freelancer and the only international journalist to be killed in South Sudan, died during an opposition-led offensive against government soldiers in the town of Kaya along the Ugandan border while on a weeks’ long embed with the rebels.
In the excruciating months since his death, Allen’s parents have made repeated attempts to find out how he was killed, using multiple avenues in both the United States and the UK, to push South Sudan’s government for answers.
These have been futile, said father John Allen.
The accounts surrounding Allen’s death are conflicting, said Krajian. They include reports of him being shot in the crossfire and being intentionally killed by government forces.
A “white rebel that was filming”
In February, the M&G visited Kaya, a geographically and militarily strategic town in close proximity to both the Congolese and Ugandan borders. Interviews with both opposition and government fighters who fought in the battle on 26 August reveal that soldiers saw Allen taking pictures before he died and still fired bullets in his direction.
“We saw him taking photos, (we thought) he was a white rebel that was filming,” Peter Mabior, a sergeant with the government army who fought in the August attack, told the M&G.
Standing at the edge of a field a few streets off of Kaya’s main road and behind several dilapidated mud huts, Mabior points to a grassy patch on the ground where he said Allen was killed. “To us he was one of the rebels, even now we still think he’s a rebel,” he said.
Another government soldier present during the attacks, who didn’t want to be named, told a ceasefire-monitoring investigator who traveled to Kaya on the same trip that he saw Allen hiding in the bushes with a camera and thought he was a “white Congolese so they shot and killed him”; and that when they went to check Allen’s bullet-riddled body, they were “shocked and felt bad that they killed a white man”. This is according to the investigator, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
Several government soldiers in Kaya explained that calling someone a “white Congolese” is how they refer to their lighter skinned neighbors who live across the border in Congo.
Due to the chaos that ensued during the clashes the two soldiers who were at the scene when Allen was killed said they didn’t know who fired the shots that claimed his life. Running their fingers over bullet holes littered across a concrete wall several feet from where they said Allen was killed, the men pointed to proof of the fighting’s intensity.
It didn’t occur to either of them that Allen might have been a journalist, they said.
Culture of Impunity
Five years of fighting in the war-torn country has killed almost 400,000 people, displaced millions and plunged pockets of the nation into famine. South Sudan’s government has been accused for its culture of “pervasive impunity” with few government-led investigations conducted in order to hold soldiers to account, according to a report in February by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
Also in February, the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Mission in South Sudan warned that endemic conflict-related sexual violence was continuing in Unity State. Their findings came on the heels of a report by aid group Doctors Without Borders that 125 women and girls had been raped, whipped and clubbed in a 10-day period in the region at the end of November. However, a preliminary government investigation into the allegations denied that anything had occurred.
Fighters:Anti-government rebels, who left the the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement after tension arose between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Macharin 2013, attacked government soldiers in Kaya, near where reporter Chris Allen was killed during the battle. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
As the country slowly emerges from war, with a fragile peace deal signed in September, pressure is mounting from the international community for the government to provide answers about Allen’s death.
“Whether the violence came from the hands of a private entity or an individual or from the government the obligation is the same because it’s an obligation to protect the right to life of everybody within the territory,” said Andrew Clapham, a member of the UN commission and a law professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Under international law South Sudan is not only required to investigate Allen’s death but there is also the duty to prosecute and punish, he said.
“The United States, with support from the UK, has been raising the investigation as a bilateral issue with South Sudan’s government,” the US ambassador to South Sudan, Thomas Hushek, told the M&G. “Whenever there’s an American citizen that dies overseas, anything that’s unusual you of course want to find out all the facts and report them back to the family,” said Hushek.
A foreign diplomat, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said that producing a credible report might not only help give Allen’s family peace of mind but also help build confidence in showing that South Sudan is a potential partner that foreign governments can cooperate with.
Last year, the US provided technical and logistical support for a trial where 10 soldiers were sentenced to jail for the July 2016 rampage in the Terrain Hotel, in which a local journalist was killed and five international aid workers were gang-raped. The trial was widely seen as a test of South Sudan’s ability to hold its soldiers to account. In that case South Sudan’s government allowed US law enforcement to help them do their job, but Hushek said that the same opening hasn’t been provided in the case of Allen’s death.
A Voice for the Voiceless
A freelancer, who wrote for outlets including Al Jazeera, The Telegraph and VICE, Allen dedicated himself to covering underreported places and telling the stories of the voiceless, said his father. Before coming to South Sudan Allen spent years in Ukraine, where he was based, reporting on the war. He was one of the first journalists on the scene after the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over the eastern part of the country in July 2014 killing all 298 people on board.
Chris Allen came to South Sudan for the first time at the beginning of August 2017, crossing into the country with the opposition from the Ugandan border. He spent weeks living at the rebels’ headquarters in Panyume, a small, nondescript town in Central Equatoria state, trying to understand what they were fighting for. It was the longest stint any journalist had spent with them during the conflict. “[He] was intensely curious about what motivated people to make the choices they did in regards to defending their country and their hopes for their lives,” John Allen added.
After living with the rebels, Allen crossed 26 miles of rugged terrain to reach the government-held town of Kaya. Before entering Kaya he was joined by two journalists from Reuters who arrived shortly before the battle began. At approximately 6am on the morning of August 26, the rebels attacked the town, according to opposition fighters who took part.
During the fighting, Allen and the Reuters journalists separated. Allen wanted to be on the front lines, said his opposition-appointed bodyguard, who didn’t want to be named for fear of his safety. Together with a group of fighters Allen split off at one point, hiding behind a few huts where government soldiers were suspected of being inside, according to his bodyguard. That’s allegedly where he was shot and killed.
A Question of Intent
Allen’s autopsy report, seen by the M&G, said he was shot five times from the left including once in the head, twice in the neck, once in his right thigh and once in his lower left leg. According to the report, the shots didn’t appear to be in close range and Allen’s wounds were most likely created by a “long-range firearm discharge”, but the report was unable to determine the exact distance.
Two international experts who saw the report said that while they can’t comment on intent, the consistency of the trajectory of the wounds raise questions about whether his death was accidental.
“Shots were intentionally fired in this direction, not ricochet, not an accidental wide spray of shots but rather a series of shots all in a line,” said an expert neuropathologist, who didn’t want to be named.
A forensic pathologist who read the autopsy report said that it is not conclusive. Allen may have been killed in the crossfire - in the wrong place at the wrong time - but also, “due to the bullet patterns particularly those in the neck and head, we also can not exclude the extrajudicial execution argument”. The M&G isn’t using his name to protect his identity.
No Reason to Investigate
In the immediate aftermath of Allen’s death, South Sudan’s government branded him a “white rebel” who entered the country illegally and was supporting the opposition.
“We have had to hear (along with the rest of the world) and endure untruths about our son, including that he was a mercenary, a white-rebel and a foreign agent,” said Krajian, calling the behavior by South Sudan’s military in the wake of Allen’s death “repugnant, reprehensible and undignified.”
While the government later acknowledged that Allen was a journalist, and expressed condolences to the family, it maintains that there’s no reason to investigate. “There was an attack, the government returned fire as they would anywhere else in the world and he entered illegally and without due process and was killed as a result and there was nothing that should be investigated,” government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told the M&G.
Army spokesman, Lul Ruai Koang said if anyone’s responsible for looking into the case it should be the opposition who “lured” Allen to be embedded with its forces and attack government soldiers.
For its part, the opposition is requesting an independent body to conduct the investigation, said spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel.
Understanding the Context
Allen’s death has raised questions about the measures journalists, particularly freelancers, take in securing their own safety in conflict zones. South Sudan’s fighting is complex with shifting frontlines and guerilla warfare conducted in remote areas, often by soldiers with limited formal training. Even journalists with extensive experience in the country find the conflict hard to navigate, rarely covering the war from the frontlines.
A former soldier in the Ugandan army, who has had American military training and is based in South Sudan, said that in this conflict when someone sees the enemy they “just react and return fire from the direction of where the gunshots were coming”. Less emphasis is placed on clearly identifying targets.
There’s also a disconnect between South Sudan’s security sector and the press. While it’s assumed soldiers would know that someone holding a camera isn’t the enemy, some of South Sudan’s soldiers have been isolated in the bush for years during decades of war and they haven’t come in contact with journalists, said Laura Bain, team leader for Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian media development organization operating in South Sudan.
“When a soldier sees a camera in the field the first thing they might think is that it’s somebody who has been sent to spy on them and gather imagery of their position, they wouldn’t necessarily think that it’s a journalist, a neutral person just doing their job,” said Bain.
She saw the disparity clearly during South Sudan’s first ever security sector training event held in March by Journalists for Human Rights and South Sudan’s Media Authority, a regulatory body created by the government. The event brought together 180 members of the country’s security forces to explain the role of journalists, particularly in post-conflict situations. While it will take time to change perceptions, the event was a first step in getting the country’s high-level generals to promise to cooperate with the media, said Bain.
For the moment, however, press freedom groups still consider South Sudan to be one of the harshest places in the world for journalists. In 2018, the World’s Press Freedom Index ranked it 144 of 180 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders. At least 20 foreign journalists have been denied entry or kicked out in recent years and nine journalists have been killed since the war erupted in 2013. The Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed that in at least six of those cases, including Allen’s, the journalists were killed either while working or in connection with their work.
Those who have lived or worked in South Sudan are placing the onus on the government to change its “dangerous environment”, said Richard Stupart, PhD researcher in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics.
“Yes, there is an argument to say that [Allen] wasn’t perhaps experienced enough in actual combat situations to have been there that day, but the fact that South Sudan’s government has little respect for the laws of war, its troops are poorly trained and it refuses to allow free reporting of the conflict, all combined to create an overall dangerous situation for reporters that ought not to have existed,” said Stupart.
Journalists are aware of the risks when choosing to enter a war zone and while it might seem like “madness” for those who decide to stay home, we owe it to Allen, someone who tried to bring people’s stories to the wider world, to at the very least “understand the dark, tragic, terrible events of his death,” said Peter Martell, journalist and author of a new book on South Sudan, First Raise a Flag.
The day before Allen died, his parents urged him to leave, “but he said he could not report ‘on the whole story’ if he left before the battle,” said Krajian.
During the conversation, Allen’s parents discussed their son’s commitment to his work, its clear risks and their love for him. The conversation ended with his parents singing Allen a song - one they had sang to him and his brother as children and later as young adults each time Allen would leave and travel to far-flung places. “Shalom, Christopher, Shalom, Christopher, Shalom, Shalom,” they sang. “We’ll see you again, we’ll see you again, Shalom, Shalom.”